Watch our webinar in collaboration with Schüco, which explores how buildings can be designed to respond more positively to environmental, economic and social change.

Now that we understand just how important it is that our buildings have long lives, we have to design them so that they are still appropriate in 50 or 100 years. If we are going to make the best use of the embodied carbon in our buildings, this is essential – but how can we know how those structures will function when everything is changing so fast?

This was the subject of the webinar on anticipatory architecture. Philip Turner, director at AHMM, described the way that his practice ‘has been working to design buildings that survive and get better over time’.

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Speakers from left to right: Matthew Dearlove, Philip Turner and Despina Katsikakis

The practice started its exploration by finding new uses for existing buildings – most notably the Tea Building in Shoreditch. Bought by Derwent with the intention of knocking it down, it survived because developer and architect realised how flexible it could be. It was originally a warehouse building, but Turner explained how this ‘good flexible low-cost building’ has found uses for work, leisure and even a private members’ club on the roof. ‘It will,’ he said, ‘become many other things in the future.’

The next challenge for the architect was to design new buildings that could be similarly adaptable. They should, Turner said, be ‘big, simple and naturally ventilated. We must accept that the framework will have a series of different stage sets within it, right down to the props.’

The first building on which AHMM put these ideas into practice was the White Collar Factory by London’s Old Street roundabout. So successful that the practice itself has taken space there, the building uses a lot of exposed concrete to regulate temperature. The growing realisation of the environmental impact of cement production means that later projects have tried to use less.


White Collar Factory at Old Street Yard in London, designed by AHMM (ph: Timothy Soar)

These include the Post Building in Holborn where incorporating the structural bones of a 1960s sorting office has saved nearly 2000 tonnes of carbon (although Turner conceded this was ‘not nearly enough’) and Belgrove House in King’s Cross, a laboratory and office building now in production. There the practice believes it will save ‘radically more carbon’ as well as continuing to embrace biophilia – in this case by planting within the twin skin of the upper, office-floor glazing.


The Post Building in London designed by AHMM (ph: Timothy Soar)

Looking forward, Turner said, ‘We will use the city in a different way. We will use buildings and places in an ever-more personalised way. And non-specificity becomes an important way to allow buildings to stay there for a long time.’

The changing ways in which we will work and use our cities was the topic of Despina Katsikakis, executive partner and global head of total workplace at real estate company Cushman & Wakefield. The company used its global reach to survey people in 100 companies about their attitudes to work during the pandemic.

This confirmed how comfortable many people were working at home, but that staff still want to come to the office to socialise, collaborate, have access to tools and to be able to share, mentor and learn. The data found that there is also a sweet point on engagement, which is at its highest when people spend some time in the office and some at home.


Evidence-based evaluation of remote work from Cushman & Wakefield’s Insights on the Future of Workplace report

Katsikakis said that our cities will change as there will be increasing demand for third spaces and event spaces. The office, however, will still have a vital role to play although it will be different from the office of the past.

‘We need,’ she said, ‘to look at the office as a social condenser for collaboration.’  Whereas before the pandemic, 60 per cent of a typical office was individual workspace, Katsikakis said, in the future it is more likely to be around 30 per cent. In contrast, collaborative workspace was typically 30 per cent but is now rising to 50 per cent. The balance is space for support and well-being – for example learning, event and social spaces, as well as space for exercise or relaxation – which is growing from 5 per cent to 20 per cent.


Virtual work and physical place from Cushman & Wakefield’s Insights on the Future of Workplace report

For the future, Katsikakis said, ‘It is important to focus on decreasing useless space, wasted time, absenteeism, waste and carbon. We must increase engagement, inclusion, ideas, collaboration, resilience, trust and wellbeing.’

Katsikakis was involved with the workplace design of the ‘vertical village’ at 22 Bishopsgate. Somebody who has taken an even more inclusive look at designing for the future is Matthew Dearlove, head of design at Knight Dragon Developments. He spoke about the Design District at Greenwich Peninsula. Intended as a permanent home for the creative industries set within a large new residential area, it comprises 16 buildings designed by eight different architects.


Building C1 by Architecture 00 in the Design District at Greenwich Peninsula, London (cgi: Uniform Studio)

The reason for this diversity (after all who would voluntarily manage eight practices?) was to achieve the variation that commonly occurs when areas develop over time. With this in mind, each practice was asked to work on its given plots without seeing what the others were doing. There were some resulting moments of serendipity. For example, Barozzi Veiga designed a large end window that looked past the chamfered roof of a neighbour.


Building A2 by 6a Architects in the Design District at Greenwich Peninsula, London (cgi: Uniform Studio)

What makes this feasible is a shared set of consultants and a clear vision from the developer. ‘We tried to think through how the buildings would work,’ said Dearlove. The ground floors are for workshops with their noise and mess. The middle floors are intended to be more adaptable and open plan, for desk-based work. And at the top, where natural light is at its best, there should be studios for painting or photography.

In the short-term it should work well like this. And in the longer term? Who knows? But with an emphasis on place-making and on high-quality design, it should be able to adapt to those uses that none of us can yet envisage. Which is what anticipatory architecture is all about.